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Big Win for Religious Liberties, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood at the Supreme Court

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Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell

Here is a quick summary of today’s Hobby Lobby decision against the HHS mandate.  A more robust analysis of the opinion will soon follow.

There is no question that this is a big win for religious liberty.  The Court disposes of a few widespread and troubling myths championed by those of a radically liberal bent.  First, the Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applies to closely held corporations.  The other side tried to argue that the expansive religious protections under RFRA did not apply to corporations because corporations are not “persons.”  The Court though, made clear that “that would leave merchants with a difficult choice: give up their right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations.”  Besides, it said, “Congress designated the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice.”  The Court said Congress intended to protect “the religious liberty of the humans who own and control” corporations.

These cases, in particular, dealt with closely-held corporations, and the question of their ability to conduct business according to their religious liberty is greatly minimized.  Contrary to what you may hear in the media, the question of a publicly traded corporation being able to exercise a similar control was not addressed by the Court, although it said that “numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring.”  In any event, that case is not before the Court and would require a new analysis from them.

The Court also puts down any and all attempts at justifying the violation of these business’ religious liberties because of their for-profit status.  Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court, said “Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law.”

The conclusion is that “HHS’s contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the exercise of religion.”  The other side suggested they could just drop providing health insurance for their employees altogether, but the Court rightfully pointed out that the assertion “ignores the fact that the plaintiffs have religious reasons for providing health-insurance coverage for their employees.”

The bottom line is the mandate “requires the Hahns and Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”  And the Court finds this is not the “least-restrictive-means of achieving [the government’s] desired goal” to “guarantee cost-free access to the four challenged contraceptive methods.”  Among other choices are paying for these itself, or give the “accommodation” it is offering to religious non-profits.  It is simply not necessary to insist on this violation of religious freedom.

But perhaps most important of all, the Court recognizes and affirms that “It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.” Alito continued, “The Court’s ‘narrow function … is to determine’ whether the plaintiffs’ asserted religious beliefs reflect ‘an honest conviction’ … and there is no dispute here that is does.”

This was a 5-4 decision with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy in the majority and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in dissent.  Justice Ginsburg’s dissent called it “a decision of startling breadth,” which to her is a negative attribute, but for those of us who want broader religious freedom, it is a welcome development.

Some who were hoping for a different result are making much of the Court’s reliance on RFRA, instead of the First Amendment to make its ruling, but this is merely a formality when it comes to the Supreme Court, which always looks to the statutes available when reaching a decision, before looking at the Constitutional provision.  There is no question that RFRA is meant to affirm our inalienable right to religious freedom as recognized in the First Amendment.  There was simply no reason for the Court to go any further than it did.  But this was definitely a great affirmation of our religious freedoms.